The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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At ease on global stage
- Left & poll in Sonia message

New York, Oct. 2: After scoring a runaway Broadway hit on Monday night, Sonia Gandhi had her biggest international outing this morning as she addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the first commemoration of Gandhi Jayanti as International Non-Violence Day.

With her son and anointed heir Rahul Gandhi listening in rapt attention, Sonia made a giant leap in the global arena — transcending her links to the Nehru- Gandhi family to claim the legacy of the Mahatma himself.

On both the occasions, Sonia radiated confidence and spoke with rare ease. Her speech to a large gathering of overseas Indians at the Marriott Marquis Broadway Ballroom in the heart of this city’s famous district last night was full of political allusion and carried a distinct election-eve flavour.

Today’s address steered clear of politics and devoted itself to outlining the greatness of the Mahatma. But more than the usual encomiums to Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of non-violence and truth, the occasion was significant in establishing the Congress president as a world leader with an awesome — if acquired — political heritage.

This point was forcefully made at the start of the deliberations today, though officially the event has been described as “an informal meeting of the plenary” of the General Assembly’s 62nd session.

The current UNGA president, Srgjan Kerim, commended secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, South Africa’s foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and Sonia Gandhi “for being the first to carry the torch that was lit, many years ago, by Mahatma Gandhi.…”

He went on to add: “Who better than Sonia Gandhi to help carry this torch. She epitomises these interlinked concepts by effortlessly intertwining her Italian heritage with the Nehru dynasty in the largest democracy in the world.…”

No one else made any allusion to her “foreign origin” either last night or today. To the contrary, the Congress president was feted as the most important leader of India today and she in turn expressed “the gratitude of over a billion people of my country” for the tribute paid by the General Assembly to Mahatma Gandhi.

That Sonia had come a long way from her hesitant entry into politics less than a decade ago was evident not just from her own speeches but the rapturous response of the Indian community -- gathered under the auspices of the Indian National Overseas Congress (Inoc) -- at the Broadway reception last night.

Referring to her visit to the city six years ago, Sonia said: “I came here last time as Leader of the Opposition. This time, I stand before you as the Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance.”

In course of the speech, Sonia made it clear she was no mere figurehead but had mastered the art of politics over the last few years.

Without directly mentioning the crisis over the nuclear deal at home, she said: “Being in coalition at the Centre is a new experience for the Congress but we have adapted well. We have not compromised on our basic values and principles.”

Then, in a direct allusion to the Left’s opposition to the deal, she added: “Sometimes a great deal is made in the public domain of the opinions expressed by our friends who support our coalition. This should not alarm you. We believe it is important to listen to all points of view. This only strengthens the democratic process and helps to arrive at a consensus.”

Although seemingly conciliatory to the Left, her “do-not-be-alarmed” message seemed aimed at the NRIs who are fervently in favour of the deal. In fact, Inoc president Surinder Malhotra referred to the deal more than once in his welcome speech.

Pointing out that Inoc acted as a goodwill ambassador for India, he said: “An example of this is our recent mailing campaign to the Congressmen and Senators during the debate on the transfer of civil nuclear technology to India.… This campaign was recognised by the then majority leader Bill Frist who sent a letter of appreciation to Inoc.”

If Sonia was subtle on the Left, she was much more forthright in her attack on the Hindu Right -- whose influence is waning over the NRI psyche as was evident from the big turnout for Sonia at the Broadway do.

While praising overseas Indians for supporting “worthwhile social causes” through NGOs working in India, she warned them that not all NGOs were “noble in their intentions or transparent in their activities”.

Her allusion to RSS-affiliated organisations became clear when she added: “If they are engaged in activities that damage our secular heritage, we must be wary of them.”

While Sonia spoke, a group called the Forum for Saving Gandhi’s Heritage gathered outside the venue and raised slogans against her.

Appreciating the role played by India’s powerful diaspora, Sonia also invoked Rajiv Gandhi’s memory.

When people used to complain about “brain drain”, it was “Rajivji” who viewed Indians working abroad as “brain bank” and he has been proved correct, she said amid repeated applause.

As though rehearsing for an early election campaign, the Congress chief also underlined her party’s commitment to secularism and inclusiveness.

She made it a point to mention the “far-reaching” rural employment guarantee programme launched by the government and the newly introduced legislation for social security for workers, adding for good measure that they accounted “for over 90 per cent of our work force”.

But more than her words itself, it was the confidence with which she delivered them and the responses she received -- both Monday and today -- that makes the New York excursion an important morale booster for the UPA chairperson before she returns to grapple with more serious crises back home.

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